Scarred by war, Bosnia and Herzegovina offers an intriguing journey through Ottoman, Yugoslavian and Balkan history
Five days in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina is still licking its war wounds, nearly 23 years after its agony ended, but that hasn’t stopped the tiny nation of a population of 3.5 million from wooing tourists, whether they be intrepid travellers or religious visitors attracted to the country’s rich Muslim history.
From the pencil-shaped Ottoman minarets dotting its skyline to tombstones with tops carved in the shape of a turban for high-profile individuals, the European country has a Turkish flavour, including rose lokum (Turkish delight) and Cevapi (similar to Turkish kebabs).
The famous bridge in the city of Mostar, the 16th century Ottoman Stari Most, which was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and rebuilt after it was destroyed by Croats in 1993 during the civil war, was first constructed by Mimar Hayruddin, an apprentice of the famous architect Mimar Sinan, the man behind Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.
The capital, Sarajevo, was named by its Ottoman occupiers after the field around a saray (or palace). They stayed in the country for nearly four centuries. Turkish influence is salient to this day and a Turkish organisation helped to fund the renovation of the Ottoman Emperor’s Mosque in Sarajevo.
They left behind a legacy of caravanserais, the motels for traders, one of which is now turned into offices and cafes in old Sarajevo. This area is teeming with shops selling kitsch trinkets and copper carvings, including coffee-pots. You can still hear the din and find artisans perfecting their copper work in the tiny streets of the old town.
The flood of tourists has been aided by increasing connectivity to the capital, including direct flights with flydubai. The number of foreign visitors last year increased 19 per cent to 923,050. The third-largest percentage of travellers came from Turkey, after Croatia and Serbia, and the number of Saudi Arabian tourists doubled.
The country’s mix of Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, the three elements that triggered the 1992-1995 civil war, has helped the country to attract a different array of tourists. This diverse make-up of the population has also translated into three presidents, one Bosniak, one Croat and one Serb, which have a rotating presidency every eight months – a solution to the civil war that left more than 100,000 people dead. Remnants of the conflict are still visible from the pock-marked buildings in the Sarajevo boulevard previously dubbed Sniper Alley, now a trendy street of malls, cafes and government buildings.
The iconic yellow Holiday Inn hotel, where journalists including Anderson Cooper reported about the war, has retained its yellow colour, but has been transformed into Hotel Holiday. It was built for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympic Games, which were held in the hills overlooking the city, but later used as sniping grounds by Serbs. Residents of Sarajevo do not want to forget the past and they have preserved shell and shrapnel marks in the streets and at a fruit and vegetable market, sites featured on free walking tours of the city.
These tours also feature a visit to the brewery that used to be one of the main sources of water for Bosnians during the 1992-1995 siege by Serbs positioned in the hills surrounding the city.
Sarajevo also has a grim history going back to 1914 when a Serb nationalist student, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife during a parade, hidden in the corner of a street in the old town. The incident was the trigger for the First World War and the site is a tourist attraction, commemorated by a plaque on the building where the assassin was positioned.
But not everything in Sarajevo is war-related. The Austro-Hungarians left a developmental touch on the country when they ruled from 1878 until 1918. From manicured buildings to water mills for grinding corn and wheat in the countryside, the Austro-Hungarians made their mark. They also built bridges, one of the hallmarks of the country, many of which were destroyed during the war. During their era, Sarajevo’s arched Moorish-style City Hall was also built, a building that was bombed during the civil war, leaving a trail of burned books that flew into the air. In 2014 it was rebuilt and reopened.
Bosnia’s countryside is also an attraction, from meandering rivers winding though lush valleys to medieval castles offering views over scenic villages.
Bosnians have a sweet nature despite scars from the civil war. They celebrate history although they remain divided over the cult of Tito, either adored as a leader or seen as the former dictator of the Yugoslav republic that broke up into six pieces after his death in 1980.
Tito’s image is plastered on mugs, magnets and T-shirts. Bosnians also mark their communist past with tours made in the famous Yugo car and walks around Communist-era buildings, which add to the eclectic mix of edifices in the country, particularly in Sarajevo.
Despite all the dark history, Bosnians have not lost their sense of humour. Next to a UN building in Sarajevo they have created a replica of a steel beef can, a staple, unpalatable meal provided by the organisation during the war.
Overall, tourists are helping the country to remember its history, but also to be forgiving enough to welcome everyone, including former enemies.
IF YOU GO
Flydubai has direct flights to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, from Dubai for around Dh2,000 for a return economy class ticket. The flight takes six hours.
The writer stayed in Airbnb accommodation: apartments cost from $19 per night.
Do go on a free walking tour with Neno & Friends in Sarajevo. The daily tours, which are tip-based, take you through old Sarajevo, walking you through its history from Ottoman to modern times. They also have a “War Scars” tour that goes through the country’s war times from the famous Snippers Alley to a memorial for fallen children. Meet Bosnia Travel in Sarajevo organises group and private tours around the country, including the city of Mostar, known for its famous old bridge.